To Annabelle – thank you for demanding Rio’s story. Thank you for being my biggest fan (although you might love Colleen’s books the most. I’ll forgive you for that.) I am so proud of you for going after your dream and making it a reality. I love you.
Those who I couldn’t have done this without:
Britt always is the first I mention because he makes it possible for me to close myself away and write for endless hours a day. Without him I wouldn’t get any sleep.
Ava and Emerson for dealing with the fact I can’t always be there when they want something. They’re troopers.
My older children who live in other states were great about me not being able to answer their calls most of the time and they had to wait until I could get back to them. They still love me and understand this part of mom’s world.
My editor Jovana Shirley at Unforeseen Editing for not only doing this last minute because I suck at deadlines but also for helping me make this story the best it could be.
My formatter Melissa Stevens at The Illustrated Author. Her work always blows me away. It’s hands down the best formatting I’ve ever had in my books.
Damonza for my book cover. This cover could not be more perfect. They are always a pleasure to work with.
Danielle Lagasse for pulling teasers and making graphics for me simply because she’s the best friend a girl could have.
Abbi’s Army for being my support and cheering me on. I love y’all!
My readers for allowing me to write books. Without you this wouldn’t be possible.
Seven Years Ago
“This ain’t no free ride, girl! Don’t you be forgetting that. I took your homeless ass in, and I didn’t have to. I did it though, now didn’t I? Dakota had no business at all, having kids. She ain’t got good sense, and neither do you or that sister of yours,” my aunt Mabel Lynn screeched her words loud enough that every neighbor in the trailer park could hear her.
My stomach felt sick from embarrassment and shame. My sister, Tory, and I had been living with my mama’s older sister in Alabama for two years now. Ever since my mama had been put in prison for murder. Aunt Mabel Lynn had said they were never gonna let her out. That she would rot in there, and just like everything else, it was my fault.
If I hadn’t told Mama about Bennie, her boyfriend, touching me in my private places, she wouldn’t have come home from work early. I just wanted her to send Bennie away. I would have never told her had I known she was gonna shoot him with the neighbor’s shotgun. Fact was, Bennie had been touching Tory longer than me, and she never said anything about it. She refused to talk about it when I tried to get her to. It was almost as if she didn’t know what I was talking about when I knew he had. I had heard her crying in the closet after he shoved her inside and then followed her. She was sixteen, almost seventeen now, and I was positive Bennie had started abusing her when she was eleven. I just hadn’t known what he was doing until he did it to me.
“There you go, standing there, looking as dumb as she is! You hear me, girl? Don’t you leave this trailer until it is spotless. When I get back from my shift, this place had better smell like motherfucking pine! And if’n that no good sister of yors shows up, she ain’t welcome in this house. She can’t come and go like some whore. She can stay and earn her keep or just stay gone!”
I nodded my head. “Y-y-yes, ma’am,” I stuttered. I used to only stutter when I was nervous, but after Bennie, it was something that happened all the time. I hated speaking. It was always a struggle.
She shook her head at me and grabbed her faded blue-jean purse with patches of cities she’d never see all over it. “I don’t have to keep you, girl. Remember that!” she continued yelling, then opened the screen door and left. Finally.
I stood at the sink, washing the dishes, until I heard her loud car start up, then pull out of the gravel parking spot beside the front stoop. When I was sure she was gone, I stopped washing and sighed in relief.
During the school year, it was easier. She worked most evening shifts at a bar. By the time we walked home from school, she was getting ready to leave and wouldn’t get back until after three in the morning. We would be at school before she woke up.
In the summer, things were different. She remembered how much she didn’t like having us around. I heard about it a lot, and so did our neighbors. Tory wasn’t here much anymore. Since summer break, she’d started going off more and more with boys. They had to be older because she stayed with them for weeks at a time. I wondered if she had air-conditioning where she was staying. She didn’t tell me much when I asked her, but then she rarely came back here.
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